The Tightwad's Small Truck

I adore Amy Daczyczyn's The Tightwad Gazette. Don't you?

Looking back after more than a decade, there are a number of observations I could make about the original newsletter, but I'm not sure to what end. For one thing, genteel poverty looked different in the eighties from now. For another thing, consumer goods are different- the book practically vibrates with the now-obsolete assumption that one buys something and subsequently owns it until it physically wears out (apply this to a world of Moore's Law computers, two-year cell phone contracts, and unsharable e-books and you'll see what I mean!) For another thing, Daczyczyn takes a very different set of assumptions for granted about what changes people may already have made in their lifestyles to accomodate a lower cash flow- she never mentions cooking entire meals in much detail (the standard practice being that a household would all eat one thing, together) but she does make a big deal about this amazing source for clothing called a thrift store- something I would hardly consider worth writing a post about, let alone a newsletter.

Mostly, though, Daczyczyn is clearly writing before Wal-Mart. It isn't fair to blame Wal-Mart itself, but as a symbol, it'll have to do. What I mean is, Amy Daczyczyn did the bulk of her writing before the era of the five-dollar T-shirt. She does caution against attempting to make one's own clothes, but at the time she was writing, clothing was, at least for professionals, a reasonably relevant part of one's budget. Maintaining clothes, washing clothes, mending clothes, all were worthwhile. Now, clothing is so damned cheap its hardly worth worrying about getting stains out. Health insurance, student loans- something that Daczyczyn herself was able to nuke within a few years by working as a graphic designer- and mortgages are far more significant determinants of a household budget.

In other words, there's hardly any way to imagine earning enough money to pay off one's college, without also earning enough to make the relatively small-scale adjustments in consumerism Daczyczyn proposes even remotely relevant. I find myself running into this wall all the time, and until this year, my student loans were actually pretty damned cheap (and I've spent two thirds of my adult life without health insurance.) If I have to shell out $195 a month regardless, why mend $2 underwear?

For me, the choice to continue living the way I guess I have for years is more philosophical now than practical- I don't like consumerism, period- but this is both an artificial form of scarcity and a significant loss to the world. If I don't get anything for my troubles a truly marginal change in my finances, who would join me? Who wouldn't rather just go back to The Great Time Suck That Is The Internet? At least in Daczyczyn's publishing days, anti-philosophical types were still motivated to get onto her mailing list.

(Another change I don't feel ready to go into is the change in the definition of value- in the 80's and 90's, people paid higher prices for "premium" brands. Today, the top name brands have lowered manufacturing costs to where they cost little more than store brands, and are often made in the exact same facilities. Instead, "value" means more determinist intangibles, like fair-trade certification or local origin. Again, I don't have an essay on this yet.)

(I also think the information age has raised the boredom threshold- but that's another issue altogether.)

The real reason I started this essay is that (with apologies to Ms. Daczyczyn) I have found a new source for hope for the future. Favela Technology.

If you google image "favela" you get pictures of cramped, almost emergent architecture, creeping up hillsides with organic determination. If you google "third world" you get maps and brown people. These may be the signifiers that strike Northern photographers as noteworthy and metonymic, but I bet if you polled the residents of the Favelas (and their equivalents around the planet) they would choose, as an emblem, the moped.

I don't have a moped. I tried fixing one last year, with little success, but the truck I drive (older than The Tightwad Gazette) runs about that well. And I am teaching myself to fix it myself. Unlike clothing, food, and children's activities, car repair is the sort of thing that, if you blink too slowly, can drain your bank account even in a post-walmart era. Most of what mechanics do is fairly simple maintenance- changing fluids, brake pads, or clutch plates- or else identifying and replacing broken components. The secret tools in a mechanic's shop are a diagnostic computer (unnecessary in cars old enough to predate OBD-II: if mine worked, it would blink out the code via the check-engine light in response to shorting out two of the pins in the connector plug) and the experience to have seen the procedures and problems before. The first is available on e-bay, the second you only get by rolling up your sleeves and getting greasy.

Does this mean its easy? Hell no, but its possible. Junkyards and e-bay make finding replacement parts a lot easier and taking them off and replacing them is usually fairly simple. The problem is psyching yourself up for it- this is still a problem I have, and its the main thing I'm working on with this truck. Dare to Repair. I'll get there.

But really, American mechanics are the minor leagues. The real work is in Cuba. The real work is in Rio, or Dar Es Salaam. The real work is making things work when you can't get replacement parts. This is not an artificial scarcity, like refusing to dumpster a new chair until the old chair is re-seated. This is where if you can't grind down your injector port with a hand-drill, you might as well give up your taxi business and go to work in the sweatshop (if you're lucky.) Don't confuse favela technology with the solar-powered crap made in the North "for the third world." People make three things out of nothing in the Favelas: food, art, and tools, the latter category including vehicles, stoves, shop signs, and houses. The middle includes musical instruments. Internet access is great, but its easier to "borrow" service than install some idiotic water-mill-powered router.

What gives me hope is, unlike the philosophically-driven "anti-consumer" tightwaddery of people like me, or the now-dated frugality of Amy Daczyczyn (or the poster-boy demonstrations of Mark Boyle and others) favela tech grows from actual scarcity, and in the complete absence of well-articulated instruction manuals or freecycle. I may have difficulty convincing myself to give up one of my ripped-elbow thermals to make patches to fix the other three, but the world will not lose its resilience by my poor example.

Anyway, I'm killing time here. More later.


New Blog Address

Hey all! For those of you interested in reading my much-more-specific blog, I registered an actual domain name for it and you can find what I put there by connecting to:


Feel free to link to it on your own pages, or forward the address around.


(PS yes I will still write things here, I just haven't in a bit. I'm planning a formal publication of a set of ten year predictions later this month)

(no subject)

I have seriously neglected this blog for the past three months, something of a record. Kind of a shame, too, since I was going strong. Anyway, I will come back here and write more in the coming months, that's a promise. Too much kookiness going on in the world not to have a comment.

I am starting a wordpress blog as well, with a more narrow focus. I'm putting off linking to it until I decide whether I can buy an actual domain name or not, but I will put the final address here soon regardless. I'm planning on promoting the new blog more actively than I ever pushed this one, which means that I'll be limiting the amount of personal information I disclose. Wordpress also has mandatory comment screening (at least, I can't figure out how to set it to auto-approve, which would be my preference if it were possible) which means less in the way of free-flowing conversation. Still, all the controls will be in English. That's got to be something.

I'm putting together a blogroll widget right now. Anybody here want me to list your journal or other blog as a link? Kerrick, I will put your permie blog up unless you object. Anybody want to link to mine, once I get a solid URL?

Take care,

Something About the Duality of Man

Interesting read on reddit (from Ran as usual) entitled I spent about two weeks living in something very close to pure anarchy, and you know what? It sucked. about surviving the Chilean earthquake. Without getting into either the writer's observations or the voluminous comment threads that follow (though they are worth perusing on your own- be ready for smart people talking smartly about anarchism, with interruptions) the discussion sheds light on an interesting aspect of Western intellectual history: the vaunted "duality of man."

Bluntly, the duality of man means the difference between nature and culture. More precisely, it means the difference between the innate moral and ethical characteristics of "human nature" as embodied in the platonic individual, and those inculcated into actual existing people through their interactions with a social matrix. By far the strongest belief in history, predominant since people started writing down their philosophy for archaeologists to interpret, is what I would call the Classical Duality, which states that innate human nature is greedy, violent, untrustworthy, and dangerous, liable to kick your little brother and steal your chickens. Only by education, family and community ethics, law, religious belief, or threat of violence can these "primal" urges (the language recapitulates the belief) be controlled and channeled into the creative and loving society we all take for granted.

The classical duality expresses itself as an anxiety when social institutions seem close to rupture- when church attendance drops, when people forego formal education, when government seems preoccupied or confused, or when "law and order break down" and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The classical duality is behind the idea of the White Man's Burden, that claimed (erroneously) that as Europeans had the most sophisticated educational, artistic, legal, and civil institutions, it was their responsibility to rescue the savages of the world from their nasty, brutish and short lives. The classical duality remains a strong rhetorical feature of even modern political debates about the ethics of banking regulation and bailouts- economic actors are seen to be overwhelmed with greed and opportunism unless restrained by the civilizing hand of the SEC, without which they are prone to moral hazard. All kinds of social misbehavior, as percieved by any and all political tendencies, are seen as a failure of institutions to correctly instruct us poor misbehaving primates in right and wrong- police, unrestrained by oversight committees, will naturally abuse their power; unhappy couples without restrictive laws, will freely divorce; teens in the "moral vacuum" left behind by absent fathers in single-mother (or dual-mother, or mother-and-grandmother, or mother-grandmother-neighbor-and-big-sister) families will inevitably become amoral superpredators, etc.

The problem with the classical duality idea is that while there are always examples of antisocial behavior coming from people whose access to educational or economic resources is limited, the converse does not seem to apply. People *with* access to educational and economic resources behave terrible as well. The classical duality has run up against the real world many times in history, but probably never was dug such a large grave as the first world war. In 1914, Europe considered itself the most civilized, educated, and accultured people ever on the face of the earth, and what's more, those people were entering something that seemed like a new golden age. Mechanization and industrialization were moving from factories to consumer goods. Radio, affordable railroads and passenger ships, and even horseless carriages were melding a geographically disparate continent (and its colonies) into a unified, open world. The children of peasants were migrating to cities and finding wealth where their predecessors found only gutters and exploitation.

A patent clerk had changed the way the world thought about space and time, overturning centuries of Newtonian physics, a Viennese neurologist was midway through a career of opening the processes of the mind to science, and HG Wells had not only written half his works, he had inspired a man to become a Princeton researcher who would, the following year, patent the liquid-fueled rocket. The world had the narrative film, jazz, and submarines, and a man named "Ishi" ("Man" in Yahi) was being cared for in California as a survivor from another age.

Then, this happened:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

The most civilized people ever marched their educated, enlightened, sons down into the mud where they stood, waiting to be shredded in the name of their precious civilization. Here's the other Wilfred Owen poem you learned in freshman English by the way.

The counterpoint, never a significant majority opinion prior to the great war, was a romantic view of the duality of man. The romantic duality says, in contrast to the classical, that in fact the untampered state of human nature is far better than the person who exists in an acculturated world today. Here we find the tale of the "natural man"- the nature-mystic purged of the corruptions of civilization, the noble savage, the untampered tribe in the wilderness. If you're reading this blog and you've never come across this view of edenic innocence, I can't help you now.

The western tradition being what it is, scientists have attempted to find evidence for both the romantic and the classical views of the duality of man. Psychologists have searched for exceptional individuals, wolf-men and feral children, bereft of civilizing influence and left to their own internal compass for moral development. The history of this search is sad, since most of the "feral" humans turned out to be either autistic or abused (a magisterial treatise on the subject may be found here) and ultimately turned up few insights on moral development. It said a lot about language, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Anthropologists, meanwhile, searched for evidence of ethics or utopias among "primitive" peoples and had similarly little success. Two fallacies troubled early writings about so-called uncivilized peoples. First, when sample sizes are small, statistics are hard to compile. We think of Philadelphia as a city with a high murder rate, but if that same rate were applied to a village of 100 people, it would have been forty years since anyone had killed anyone- two generations without a homicide. Secondly, while many people seemed to enjoy a peaceful, happy life without any of the benefits of western civilization, this is not the same as saying people are uncivilized. There are sociable and antisocial ways to be !Kung, civilized and uncivilized ways to be Dine'; every culture has its rules and codes, and feels anxiety about those who do not obey them closely.

Two things happened in the middle of the twentieth century to significantly change thinking on the question of duality.

The first was the shakeout of psychological research in response to the horrors of the second world war and the holocaust. Experiments like the obedience tests conducted by Stanley Milgram (pictured) in which an unsuspecting subject, thinking themselves to be a lab tech, calmly electrocuted an actor when prompted to do so by the "senior experimenter," or the experiment by Solomon Asch in which participants agreed with actors posing as co-subjects that dissimilar lines were in fact identical, shook people's faith in the concept of independent moral judgment in the face of social standards.

The second event was Noam Chomsky's (yes, that Noam Chomsky) claim that human brains contained a "language organ" that generated every known language according to a set of biologically innate patterns. While languages themselves could vary widely, certain invariant conditions had to be met for humans to process symbolic thought, and furthermore humans raised without exposure to existing languages were as destined to spontaneously generate their own rule-following private languages as they were to learn to walk or swallow.

Suddenly, everything was different. The duality of man collapsed- it was no longer possible to separate psychology from culture, culture from nature, civilized from primitive, and any judgments or assumptions based on that separability were bound to come apart. The new question was, what is invariant, that is, present everywhere the same for all people (cultural squicks against mother-son incest), what was variable but constrained (circumstances under which killing is allowed, or classification of novel words) and what was truly free to vary (the definition of an attractive hairstyle.) None of these conditions existed entirely in the individual mind or entirely in the society in which the mind was embedded- a continuum of norms and behaviors connected people with communities, rising out of the architecture of the human mind, and the traditions and practices that these minds co-created together.

Without the duality-of-man model, though, social questions became very difficult. The conflict between anarchists and statists had always hinged on the question of whether people would be better off without legal and political control; now that (romantic) question seemed unanswerable. The project of socialism was to imbue the institutions with justice and rationality- a (classical) gambit that wouldn't contradict the psychological capacity of the individual for exploitation.

[ETA: I don't think I was very clear in the first draft of this paragraph. My point about socialism is that one can't design rational institutions independently. and then overlay them onto complex- and complexly cultured- populations. "Civilizing" institutions can no more exist in a vacuum than "primitive" individuals. Systems just aren't made of bricks/they're mostly made of people]

Stripped of moral concerns, advertising psychologists have learned well how to manipulate people under the new models, but social movements have shrunk from doing likewise, retreating to the classical/romantic arguments on the duality of human nature. So, what then?

I will never tire of recommending this woman:

In 1985, Doris Lessing gave a series of lectures later collected as "The Prisons We Choose To Live Inside." The embed above is the first part of the collected audio. I leave you with no remark other than a suggestion to listen; no commentary I could add would better summarize her insight into the question of how cultural and political movements should respond to the revelations of social psychology and the collapse of the culture/nature dichotomy. If there is a way forward, it will have to dispense with the mechanistics of classical or romantic undestandings of "the mind" and focus instead on what we know about human cognition and behavior, viewed, as Lessing suggests, as clearly and dispassionately as we view the behavior of other species.

Believe it or not, she's a better utopian than the rest of us.


OMG coercive transhumanism?

(the title of this entry is heavily sarcasticated)

I sincerely hope everybody picked up the flap about medicine to prevent lesbian babies, yes? It has all the necessary elements of a beautiful internet horror show- dishonest doctors experimenting on pregnant women, babies with ambiguous gender, and a medical plot to enforce stepford wives... pure dead brilliant.

Ambiguity in bodily correlates of gender are, basically, irrelevant to most people's lives, including the people who have them. There have always been genitalia that don't fit, for instance, and somehow the human race has soldiered on. There is even supposedly (I can't source this) a hadith about how difficult-to-assign people should pray: with the women, until such a point in their lives when they declare themselves to be men, and from then on only with the men. See? No harm, no foul.

In fact, the definition of ambiguous gender has steadily changed with biotechnology's ability to detect variation in the body. Turner syndrome was no considered a sex/gender issue until someone learned to reliably stain and identify chromosomes- oh look, women with Turner's are short an X chromosome. That's why they're short, broad-necked, "shield chested" and tend to have developmental problems unrelated to genitalia. Now, its a textbook "intersex" condition despite everyone who had it prior to the 1930's being considered, well, some contemporary unpleasant word like "retarded."

Similarly, the other prime textbook example of an intersex condition, Kleinfelter's Syndrome, presents clinically only with an increased risk for infertility, lower cognitive development, and leukemia- the list of possible causes for those symptoms is very, very long. Still, because the "lesion" at the root of Kleinfelter's is an XXY karyotype, something invisible until this century, and because John Money put those willowy naked men with bars over their eyes in his books, Kleinfelter's is considered an intersex condition.

Let me repeat- there have always been people with ambiguous genitalia, male and female, identifying with a complete range of culturally available roles, throughout history. Men have always had hypospadias, women have always found themselves with an elongated clitoris, and basically, we've managed to figure out ways to get by. Its just not that big a deal.

(by the way, before I get on to the meat of the matter, let me give an explicit shout-out to ISNA and others who've pointed out the ways in which cultural attempts to "correct" these ambiguities have been horrible- but as I'll explain in a minute that's a different issue)

Now we get to CAH. CAH is one of those rare things that still happens a lot- about 1 in 16,000 births, or 5,000 women in Philadelphia. CAH is caused by a deficient enzyme in the synthesis pathways for cortisone, that leads to byproducts being dumped into other synthetic pathways and causing, among other things, high testosterone levels regardless of gender. Predictably, girls with CAH tend to be born with ambiguous genitalia. There is some reason to believe that women with CAH are also more likely to be butch or identify as lesbian, but there is also a good suggestion that this is due to the history of CAH advocacy; straight women with CAH (there are plenty) are believed to be less likely to step forward for follow-up studies or even to identify with the condition. One woman (who was gay-identified) told me her best guess was 40% lesbian or bisexual, which is still higher than "gen. pop." but hardly an automatic consequence.

(well, and then there's the question of what percentage of women who want to jump other women identify as lesbian or bisexual- do you see how complicated this gets?)

Unlike the other conditions loosely grouped as "intersex" though, CAH has a life-threatening side effect. Some of the other steroid hormones dumped out by the enzymatically blocked pathway affect mineral balance in the bloodstream, and CAH folks can suffer a "salt wasting syndrome" or an "adrenal crisis" that basically kills them around age three unless treated. Interestingly, without the ambiguous genitalia as a heads-up, boys with CAH are often not detected until this happens.

So, some bright doctor figured out that providing treatment in utero decreases the embryological changes of CAH. Maybe. And, given this side effect (which the drugs may not effect- i.e. babies will need post-natal treatment for salt-wasting either way) they might be right to try to do so. Unfortunately for our hypothetical bright and neutrally-minded doctor, these less-likely-to-experience-adrenal-crisis babies are being born into a culture that freaks the fuck out about ambiguous genitalia. From a consumer perspective, this is a prenatal treatment for ambiguous genitalia.

How you feel about that depends on a lot of interesting questions. Most people on this list (I hope) are rightly horrified by the idea of amputating a clitoris (or excavating a vagina) on a pre-consent infant, or even a slightly-older-but-still-not-legally-competent child. Yikes. The question is, if there were none of the predictable side effects (not having genitalia, for instance) would it still be a problem? Interesting question, isn't it? And definitely something bioethicists and everyone else should feel free to think about.

And that's who Alice Dreger and Ellen K. Feder are. They wrote the paper that got the ball rolling. Most of it concerns bizarrely inappropriate methods for evaluating clitoridectomies by a given doctor, but they also put the word out on dexamethasone as a chemical genital normalizer, and that's where Time magazine and everyone else picked up the story. The concern seems to be that parents would choose prenatal treatment not just for the genitals, but also to avoid the dubious-but-plausible other correlates for adult women with CAH- the masculinity, tendency to date women, and "disinterest in babies, [not playing] with girls' toys or becom[ing] mothers, and whose "career preferences" are deemed too "masculine." By the time Dan Savage at the Seattle Stranger got on board, dex was a drug to create Stepford Wives, and witty commenters were pointing out that the idiot doctor (Maria New- feel free to go harass her) who came closest to advocating this point was herself in a profession atypical for women.

Of course, lets review:

1) Dexamethasone might change the embryologic effects of CAH, which include ambiguous genitals
2) CAH might also be associated with masculinity in adult women, which
3) might be due to embryodevelopmental events
but also:

1) most lesbians do not have CAH
2) most women in non-traditional careers are straight (and also don't have CAH) and therefore
3) treating people with dexamethasone won't eliminate masculine or queer women but
4) probably will have side effects.

I am convinced that the FDA's 2005 ban on gay sperm donors had nothing to do with HIV (in 2005?) and everything to do with fear of a gay gene. Or, a gay planet. Despite the fact that most queer people have heterosexual fathers (no, do the math, its true) I'm sure the FDA was imagining nightmare scenarios in which angry fathers shot up IVF clinics because they "made my son a faggot." I put this dexamethasone flap into the same mental file folder- a PR move with human consequences, one that won't accomplish the longstanding unstated goal of normative medicine to "give parents options" about preventing gay people, but will screw up a small number of people's lives.

Which brings me back to the sarcastic title of this entry. Every now and again, someone realizes that the baseline for normal has moved, in the upper classes of America. Are there any students now at MIT who don't use Provigil? How many phone numbers can you remember? The coverall term for this is transhumanism- a sort of conceptual body modification, or "lifehacking," where technology is used to "upgrade" the human experience. So far, the word is primarily attached to Quinn Norton's magnetic implant or what-have you, but every futurist from Bruce Sterling to, crap, Aldous Huxley has gotten in on the action with suggestions for the future.

I believe technology goes through predictable phases: neat engineering hack -> centrally controlled phantasmagoria -> porn -> public platform -> buried platform underlying the next level of technology. By example, social networking is moving from phase four to phase five, video chat is moving from phase three to phase four, imax is moving from phase two to phase three, and augmented reality is moving from phase one to phase two.

So far, transhumanism is stuck in phase one, "neat engineering hack." Everyone builds their own equipment or steals their own prescription or gets their own IRB. You publish, you give a TED talk, you brag to your friends, you show off at tech fairs, conferences, whatever. We can predict, though, that as the techniques get a little more complicated and profitable, the next step will involve more projects like this CAH "prevention"- centrally controlled, socially normative, and highly coercive under the rhetoric of "choice" or "what's best for your children." On the other side, good best practices will filter down to more unscrupulous practitioners and eventually to the general public, but we have a long slog through the superbaby valley before we get there.


Thought number one: dwarves, the deaf, and gay people have all developed creative cultures around traits that a coercive bodyhacking regime would try to eliminate. Lets hang together and watch each other's backs, okay?

Thought number two: ever wonder why people who feel comfortable lecturing each other about how once you do it, you have to accept a baby, are so unwilling to say that once your baby turns out to be gay, you have to accept that?

Thought number three: you know what the harbinger was? Not rogaine or viagra- it was Lamisil. If I'm going to be taking antibiotics for a year, it better be to get rid of malaria or TB. Who really gives a shit about funny-colored toenails anyway? Oh yeah, money to be made...


This will be of especial interest to eatthosediapers and katuah, I think.

Wired magazine just published an analysis of AA, how it works (or doesn't work), where it came from, and what we know about the neuroscience involved. Surprise! Once again, surrendering individualism to larger social norms seems to be healthy, work against addictive tendencies, and actually restore synaptic plasticity on a microanatomical level. This is the second time I've covered findings like this, and in both instances, the group socialization that led to improved emotional stability were linked to, but not exactly the same as, religion. As this latest article puts it:

there is evidence that a big part of AA’s effectiveness may have nothing to do with the actual steps. It may derive from something more fundamental: the power of the group. Psychologists have long known that one of the best ways to change human behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups, rather than treat them individually. The first to note this phenomenon was Joseph Pratt, a Boston physician who started organizing weekly meetings of tubercular patients in 1905. These groups were intended to teach members better health habits, but Pratt quickly realized they were also effective at lifting emotional spirits, by giving patients the chance to share their tales of hardship.... More than 70 years later, after a review of nearly 200 articles on group therapy, a pair of Stanford University researchers pinpointed why the approach works so well: “Members find the group to be a compelling emotional experience; they develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their acceptance and feedback.”...

The importance of this is reflected by the fact that the more deeply AA members commit to the group, rather than just the program, the better they fare. According to J. Scott Tonigan, a research professor at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions, numerous studies show that AA members who become involved in activities like sponsorship—becoming a mentor to someone just starting out—are more likely to stay sober than those who simply attend meetings.

I am still not personally a believer in any particular religion, but I trust psychology and neuroscience. There seems to be a connection between the stabilizing transcendence of ritual participation in groups, and the healing and stabilizing powers attributed to religion. That, right there, is enough for me to support group rites as a way of life- meals, dancing, collaborative music, storytelling, and mutual trust. If AA can provide that, if churches can provide that, if traditionalist ethnic and religious separatists can provide that, if subcultural land occupations can provide that... well, bonus. I can't be atheist enough to hate on that.


Here's the part that Paula will appreciate: where AA came from. The founder, apparently, wasn't a big christian. In fact, prior to the founding of AA, he didn't believe in any god. What put the higher power in AA was a mystical experience under the influence of...tropane alkaloids and William James. Yup. I personally think Eliade is a reductionist nazi jerk, but under his categorization scheme, AA is the largest, best accepted shamanic cult in North America.


The other interesting point Wired makes (and of course, they would make this point) is that AA is also anarchic, non-commercial, and stringently non-dogmatic. Other than twelve steps and twelve traditions, there are no rules in the program, and such rules as are covered by the traditions tend to be primarily restrictive of other rules emerging. AA, in other words, can also be seen as an early predecessor of Creative Commons and open source projects. Its easy to forget what a jump this really was, since "at that time, the conventional wisdom was that alcoholics simply lacked moral fortitude. The best science could offer was detoxification with an array of purgatives, followed by earnest pleas for the drinker to think of his loved ones."

I had a very depressing breakfast discussion with a friend this morning. We talked about the unfolding hustler's paradise in the gulf, where everyone with money is snatching up grants and shortcuts to get in on the cleanup funding, and everyone with a good idea is trying to sell you on it, and nobody answers the phone. The "volunteers" are diverted to the tourist beaches, where they rake tar balls off the sand into piles, which are bulldozed back into the water at night. There's no-one in charge, and sometimes power looks like requiring certain veterinary meds on any boat that handles a seabird, so that you and your friends who have that medication can get all the contracts. Anything can be made to look like heroism on the internet, and nothing works.

The gulf compares badly to the open-source worlds depicted in Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling's futurist novels (an introduction would be the downloadable White Fungus) Its good to remember that one other open source anarchy has reached the point of being a magnificent social institution without compromising its ideals. Here's to AA.


Presenting Modern Moonlight Just As Advertised

Two articles from Psychology Today and en email discussion with Ran. The first, which despite the title is entirely safe for work, concerns the observed decrease in social anxiety disorder among people who consume [naked pictures] compulsively when they are forced to stop. According to the writer:
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge suggests that the intense stimuli of today's prn hijacks and rewires "brain real estate" that would otherwise be devoted to making social ties rewarding.

The article links this to other dopamine-mediated addictive behaviors, like drug use and compulsive gambling, saying the perceived social anxiety is similar to the way drug users "often feel anxious or depressed the rest of the time" i.e. when not using. Socializing, when anxious or depressed from poorly calibrated reward "circuitry" can "feel like too much effort."

Its an interesting theory, because whacking is, essentially, harmless. It doesn't cause cancer or liver disease or malnutrition, doesn't lead to unpayable debts, doesn't require regular unpleasant interactions with criminals or law enforcement, doesn't requiring a supply of illegal substances, and is unlikely to be so distracting as to lead to leaving one's child in a hot car for an hour. While its still somewhat difficult to talk about, its not considered to be exceptionally strange (even if self-reported compulsive forn use is rare) and doesn't face the social stigma of 150 years ago. If there are mental health correlations with compulsive behavior related to [this stuff I can't name on lj], they can't be attributed to pharmacology or to the social matrices surrounding it. The anxiety and depression are much more likely to be attributable to the compulsion itself. Furthermore, since some of the case circumstances in which people were observed to become more socially ept were the result of outside control- internet filtering, for instance- the improvement in "their confidence, their ability to look others in the eye, their sense of humor, their perception of their "manliness," their concentration, their optimism, their judgment"- is likely to be an effect, rather than a cause, of cessation.

The article takes as a given that "[o]ur nervous systems are open-ended circuits designed for living in community with others. In fact, it's biologically impossible to regulate our own emotions for any length of time." Where it becomes interesting- and yes, a bit speculative- is on the last page, where it indicts the American concern for individualism and self reliance on charges of attempting to undercut this innate drive to seek biochemical satisfaction through complex, nuanced social interaction: the "pleasure of seeing a friend, watching a movie, or the curiosity that drives exploration."

Well, so much for that. Its a fairly uncommon complaint, I hear. The connection between compulsion and addiction generally, though, and poor social skills, isolation and anxiety- now that's interesting. It reminds me of the Naked Lunch. Remember?

The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. (Burroughs)

The Naked Lunch is full of wild speculation on the larger-scale social effects of an imaginary world in which people's sense of value and reward has been deformed by addiction. What does happen to a culture when everyone's- okay, lots and lots of people's- drive to spend time creatively with other people is replaced by higher-value, but simpler gratifications? Probably pretty damn shitty place to be. Nobody needs to come to any accord or agreement, you can get what you need on your own. Sucks to your assmar, we have the conch... Anti-social as all get-out!

But, Pace Mr. Burroughs, heroin isn't going to be that problem. Only 0.2% of the population has a treatable heroin addiction. Gambling? less than 2%. Photographic nudity
? no depoliticized data, but lets say "not very many." Even drinking an smoking have been well-incorporated into cultural practice. We allow and manage tobacco addiction. We recognize, stigmatize, and attempt to deal with alcoholism. If we're going to see Burrough's dystopia, we'd need something new, viewed positively, and reaching, say, 90% penetration of the population. Oh yes, and highly, highly addictive.

Does anyone over at Psychology Today ever read Psychology Today? They ran another article four months earlier that exposes just such a super-drug: cell phones.

Now, you can tell me that cell phones (and facebook, and hell, email and livejournal) are about communicating, and that this is good. My question is this: when you have a society that makes fun of its generally bad communication skills, that not only can't stop interrupting actual communicative conversations to answer text messages, but starts crashing cars, trains, airplanes, buses and trucks, and even (god help us) ambulances because they just... can't stop... texting... that's a compulsion.

And hey, maybe its just me, or maybe I'm getting old, but doesn't it seem like people are getting more antisocial? Used to be, there'd be an organizing meeting within hours of a bombing run on Sudan... I've seen maybe one flyer for anything directed at BP in two months. Used to be, people came and sat in each other's living rooms to be social. Now, who has time to leave the house? The studies that have tested whether people become less social with increased internet use have been clumsily implemented- for instance, one found that people with high techno usage are slightly more likely to have done "a favor" for a neighbor in the previous year, but significantly less likely to have received one. Sounds like a more self-serving understanding of "favors"? Who the crap knows. Self-report won't unwrap this- everyone already thinks that they but not those other people- are safe biking or driving while talking/texting on the phone...

Okay. Too many ellipses. Texting is less than two decades old. Pretending we know what it does to a person's social anxiety, let alone their society, is entirely premature, and I always tend to worry. Still, the connections are all there piecemeal. Here's an experiment. Give up your cell phone for a month and don't borrow anyone else's- don't worry, your job was done perfectly well ten years ago by someone who'd never heard of texting. Then tell me it isn't an addiction. Better yet, turn on a jammer in your office or on the bus.

[ETA: If this entry reads like a Seinfeld episode, understand it took an hour of selective bowdlerizing to get it past the content blocker.Jeez. I have an easier (and more obscenely fun) time cussing out researchers than I do quoting them!]

DIY Orthotics

The other day, while running, I heard something snap and my foot hurt. A lot. I was wearing shoes- how often am I ever wearing shoes?- and I don't know exactly what it was I stepped on, or whether it was my foot or the unknown object that made the noise, but it felt like a ridge, more or less parallel with my foot, that hit around my second and third metatarsals. I have pain on dorsiflexion, none on plantar flexion or linear pressure (pushing back on my toes), my toes wiggle, feel and get blood, and nothing feels unstable, sharp or displaced. Yup. I think I opened a plantar stress fracture of my second or third metatarsal. I can barely walk, because I can't put weight on the pads of my feet, though I can stump around on my heel just fine, and I would like for this to be a temporary state of affairs.

Oh yeah, no health insurance. I should mention that too.

This happened at 10:30AM on Saturday. Not willing to be humbled, I stumped the rest of the way around the cemetery, walked to the farmer's market with sweetheart and both dogs, and walked the mile or so home, arriving around 11:15. Then I had to decide what to do.

(I only decided later into the process to document what I was doing, so the photos are out of order)

The purpose of a splint is to provide a form onto which a body part can be held immobile. A good splint is mostly, but not entirely rigid, immobilizes the joints above and below the injury (toes and ankle,) lightweight, and well-formed to the surface it fits. "Splint" shares an etymology with "spline"- a thin strip of wood used to approximate curves for boatbuilding and drafting- and as it stands I happened to have recently sawn down some ash strips for scrapering into lamina for bow-making. So, the first step was to cut a piece to length and get it covered and underwater in a hot oven.

Here is the leftover length after I cut off what I wanted:

A Leftover Strip of Ash Wood

The next step was to trace my foot (I used my good left foot) onto a few pieces of plywood scrap and cut a bending form. The bandsaw, borrowed from a friend, borrowed from a friend, did not work, so I made relief cuts with a cross-cut and shaped the form with a keyhole saw. This is what it looked like when I was done:

The Outline of My Heel, Calf, and Arch

After forty-five minutes or so, I judged the wood soft enough to work, so using pliers I pulled it out, bent it around the form, and pinched in the concave-est parts with advancing clamps. I had to keep dipping the heel into a pan of boiling water, which wasn't the best option, really. Once the clamps were set, I left it out in the sun to cool and dry, around 12:30:

These clamps are genius, by the way

You wouldn't want to work in haste like this if you had a choice. Had I been making a bow, I would have taken the time to scraper off all the grain runout and bend slowly. Circumstances (and minimum tolerances) were different here. This is what happened:


The strength wasn't lessened too much by this though. Around 3:15PM I removed the clamps and found the splint held its shape well, and was strong through the heel despite splintering a bit during bending. This isn't the best picture, but here is what it looked like free of the form:

Now check out that arch support!

And around 3:30PM, with the help of some vet wrap and an ace bandage, I put it around my foot and found it sturdy enough to immobilize my foot and anke, without being too heavy or awkward to move around in. A rattan cane, some ibuprofen, and I'm mobile again!

Boot socks make decent batting, too

So within five hours, I had a lightweight and effective splint custom-fitted to my injury, for a total cost of about $10 (the vetwrap and the ibuprofen.) Good luck getting that speed of service in an ER, especially without insurance and without a surgery-grade injury. Of course, disclaimer disclaimer, I've been working on ambulances for eight years, knew with a great deal of confidence what had happened even without x-rays, and I'm a competent adult who can make her own decisions about her body. Still, how is it possible that our community, fond as it is of bike wrecks and low-paying jobs, has never really taken on orthotic appliances? Folks, we can do this.


[Update #1: I feel confident that next time I could do even better, possibly make multi-axis curves, or build something that can keep the abrasion of sidewalks off the tender fabric of an ace bandage, and there are people kicking around my circle of friends who would have made the damn thing out of fibreglass in an hour. Or who had a working bandsaw.]

[Update #2: Today, Sunday, at work I wore an orthotic boot I borrowed from a friend, mostly to keep up appearances. People see the boot and think "oh, there is someone who went to the doctor and was told to wear a boot." People don't see that its waaaaay too small for me.]

Quality Improvement

In November of 2007, I wrote an entry making a number of predictions about the future. I periodically see it archived and linked on the internet as a "realistic" alternative to some of the doomsaying that was popular at the time, and since several of my claims were testable, I'm interested in revisiting them to see how realistic they ultimately were. To take you back, the post was written when Lehman Bros was a viable company, crude oil had never been over $100/bl, and the phrase "too big to fail" was a month old. The president was a man named George, but polls were showing a likely democratic victory the following year by frontrunner Hillary Clinton over her probable opponent, Rudy Giuliani.

I wrote in prose form, which makes it harder to extract specific predictions, but the strongest statement I made was that "we're probably, in the long view, two years into a five year collapse of the United States as a viable economic and political entity." Given the dates, that would set the timeline for decline from November 2005 (right after I read James Fallows' Countdown to a Meltdown which I've ripped off brutally ever since) to November 2010, which at the end of this coming long, hot summer. Obviously, four-and-a-half years into it all, we haven't come apart yet. But there are some more detailed claims I made that can be enumerated:

1) "The global shortage of petroleum is mostly going to unfold in the next decade" [Nov 2007 - Nov 2017] Whether this is true depends on how you define "shortage." Since 2005, global production has been pretty much flat. However, other than a wild spike in the summer of 2008, prices have remained fairly stable, suggesting that increased demand in some areas has been balanced by demand destruction in others. This means that although Chinese imports have gone up by 33%, someone in the developing world has given up their dream of delivering vegetables by truck. Or, more likely, building a new municipal water system or iron foundry. That this has happened without boosting prices is a result of the global economic recession, since no money to build that water system means no competition for oil deliveries. Overall I gave myself an enormous margin on this one (2017?) and the jury will have to remain out until then. For now: looks like a win

2) "Jobs will be harder to find" Unemployment in 2007: 4.6% Unemployment this month: 9.7% So, double. win

3) "Money will be scarce" Actually, US discretionary income is up slightly, from just under $30k per capita per year, to just over. And that's in 2005 dollars, too. Credit may be scarcer, and most of what actually functions in this economy as "discretionary income" is actually credit, but I didn't specify credit, I said money. fail

4) "Everything will cost more" Yes, prices have risen on virtually everything, but less so that you'd think. In fact inflation is down from where it was in late fall, 2007: 2.2% vs 4%. I'm going to call this a fail.

5) "People will have to move more frequently, often in with each other" I'm going to balk on analyzing this one for two reasons. First, this has been a trend for forty years, second we will get much better data in a few months once the 2010 census comes out. Not gonna guess.

6) "Population movement into cities that maintain close economic ties with other economies" I blew this one completely. Major international trade hubs aren't the big draws: tech hubs are. Austin, Charlotte, Raleigh, Denver and Dallas seem to be the big winners. fail

7) "Lesser concern for worker rights" The story here seems to be that there is no story here. Minimum wage is finally up, and a number of new industries (medical professionals, for instance) have won the right to unionize, but overtime is up too. So, who the heck knows. If anyone can find a good synopsis I'll post a link to it.

8) "Worse nutrition" Yup. Hunger and food insecurity are dramatically worse than they were. I won't wade into the obesity-as-malnutrition flamefest, though. Win.

9) "Lower life expectancy" Most recent data are from 2006 when it was still creeping upwards. Again, the census will make this much clearer. Still too soon to say

10) "More provisional local power structures" I'll come back to this for #14, but when I saw Idaho start minting its own currency even I was shocked. The presence of an enormous "states' rights" movement supports me as well. Win

11) "Gas could double in the US" It didn't. According to GasBuddy gas was $3.10 a gallon in November 2007, peaked at $4.12 in July of 2008, and fell back to today's $2.72 Fail

12) "Food prices will probably go up too... the corn, wheat and soybeans that form the basis of the American diet- and processed foods derived from these commodities will probably go up soon as well." Very much wrong. It isn't a single link but play around with this chart and you'll see. Corn and soybeans are significantly above their 2005-6 prices, but other than a spike in 2008 (that also affected beef and wheat) ag commodities in November 2009 were more or less where they were in November 2007. You have to use the same month, though, because annual harvests create predictable patterns, so I can't include the most interesting data point: since the start of 2010, beef has been going up enormously. If you start in 2005, this is a big win, but starting in 2007 its a Fail

13) "If you're considering growing your own complete diet, may I recommend buying in bulk, planting a couple hundred square feet with leafy greens and using the time you save to run for the school board?" Thank you, Texas Board of Education. You may have screwed up the education of a generation of American schoolkids, but you gave me a big win.

14) That question of the US collapsing as a viable economic and political entity... Look, so far I'm at five wins, five fails, and three I don't want to call. This subject, though Collapse )

Also, to re-underline what was probably the point of the original essay, the "collapse of civilization" isn't the coolest six months ever, followed by utopia- that's a video game. Nor is it when everyone you despise drowns in their inadequacy- that's antisocial personality disorder. The "collapse" is the sort of thing that shows up in anxieties and statistics for years before anyone realizes that their world has significantly altered, and when they do realize, they've already learned how to get by and take the new normal for granted. We're already there, we're already living it, and still our values don't allow us to stockpile shotguns and blow away any neighbors who look too long at our garden patch. Its a good thing.

Also, I'm considering a move to wordpress, and if I go, I'll probably import all the most important posts I've written. Do people have nominations? I will also probably come up with a new position paper, synthesizing all the ideas I've had since beginning this journal a gazillion years ago. I feel like I still come up with new perspectives and things to get curious about, so nothing should be considered My Final Manifesto, but it would be interesting to get it all in one place.